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    Monday, February 9, 1998

    Hockey women do us proud

     NAGANO -- The truth is, journalists don't know what to make of the Canadian women's hockey team or the women's game itself. This would be profoundly uninteresting if our collective awkwardness wasn't, as I believe it is, a pretty accurate reflection of the difficulty the larger world also has with these remarkable women and their sport, which has now made its official Olympic Games debut.
     The simple answer -- to treat the whole kit and caboodle just as one would the male package -- doesn't quite work.
     Though the women's game is a century old in Canada, as every member of the Canadian team will tell you at the first opportunity, it is still a new sport to most of the planet, with the result that the competition here and everywhere else is wickedly uneven. There are only a few teams capable of even giving the Canucks a game of it, and everyone will be reeling if they don't meet the Yanks in the gold-medal final.
     Canada's first match of the Olympic tournament offered abundant proof: The Canadians beat Japan 13-0, despite fairly blatant efforts in the last period not to score, outshot their hosts 64-3, and so completely dominated the much smaller and more delicate Japanese (whose brave goalie, Yuka Oda, has a swan painted on her face mask) that the game was barely watchable. As one of my colleagues, Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated, drily remarked, "Japan is a rapidly submerging hockey nation."
     What this translates to very often is that except on the ice, the Canucks can't win for trying.
     There were mutterings at the Japan game, for instance, that Canada was trying to run up the score -- I thought I saw the opposite, and a couple of the late goals were utter flukes -- the suggestion implicit that they should have backed off. Good grief: How do you restrain a group of elite, highly trained athletes who have waited all their lives to get here? How do you tell them to slow down? Ditto an exuberant victory dance late in the game by, I believe, Geraldine Heaney, who scored Canada's 11th goal; what would we have the poor child do when she pops one in, I wonder -- look sorry?
     Were the talent disparity less outrageous, it would be possible to cover the tournament in a straightforward manner, but given that that, at least until the finals, is unlikely, what one is left with is all kinds of time to dwell upon the sexuality issues, which are largely unspoken (that is, the players are rarely asked about them) but omnipresent and quite real in the minds of those who are here to report on the sport.
     Women's hockey, even without bodychecking and even given the fact that there are only a couple of genuinely elite-level teams, remains a rough, tough sport, just like the men's version. (You doubt me, watch the delightful Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada's most physical player, who, given the choice, goes through the opposition rather than around it; I love this girl.) By the ordinary standards against which women are measured and by which we have learned to measure ourselves, the game is almost anti-feminine in its demands.
     Some, though by no means most, of the female players are physically mannish (pecs where you expect to see breasts, that sort of thing), and I am frankly disconcerted by how much the Canadian women remind me of just about every male player I have ever seen -- their posture and body language, the poses they unconsciously strike, their mannerisms. I recognize that this is my perception and my problem, not theirs, but judging from the comments of my colleagues, most of whom are male and even more rigid in their definitions of what is properly female than I am, I'm certain I'm not alone in finding it almost eerie and feeling a little discombobulated.
     At the same time, I admire the players, and head coach Shannon Miller, a hard little nut who usually dresses head-to-toe in black and doesn't yield a whit to convention, for their brassy refusal to play that particular game; they remain true to themselves, and tough on us if we can't handle it.
     It will get easier, I think, as we all grow accustomed to their fresh faces and to this stretching of the gender boundary, because the cockiness, mental toughness and emotion which we so value in the men who play our national game, the best of whom bring a fierce intelligence to hockey and its traditions, appear to be there in equal dollops in our women, too.
     There's no better illustration of this than the story of Danielle Goyette, the 32-year-old high-scoring forward whose father died shortly after the team got to Nagano and just before the opening ceremonies.
     Goyette knew her dad's death was coming even before she left Canada; he had been suffering from Alzheimer's, and had taken a decided turn for the worse. What's left of her family -- sadly, her mother died about two years ago on the eve of the national championships -- urged her to go to the Games, and with a heavy heart, Goyette did.
     Shannon Miller delivered the news to her; Goyette broke down and wept for hours. By breakfast the day of Canada's first game, she told the coach she was ready. "She said next to her family, she loves hockey," Miller said.
     Danielle Goyette scored three goals in the game against Japan, including Canada's first and last. Afterwards, she was feeling too tender to talk about her dad, but her best friend on the team, captain Stacy Wilson, told reporters how, even as his disease took hold of Mr. Goyette and robbed him of much of his past, he always remembered about Danielle's hockey, and how much she loved the game. It was enough for him; eventually, I believe, it will also be enough for the rest of us.